By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
A local church’s expansion project has nearby residents reading up on their scripture.
“If one of the rules of the good book is to love thy neighbor, they have done anything but,” resident Cara Weiblinger said.
A little more than a year ago, early concept plans for a new building at Alexandria Presbyterian Church, located at 1302 W. Braddock Road, went to the city for approval. The project would increase the church’s footprint by more than six times, from 3,400 to 22,794 square feet.
Weiblinger is among the residents who live adjacent to the church and are opposed to the expansion. At least 21 households in the nearby neighborhood have expressed written concern about the project’s footprint and proximity to surrounding residences.
After the planning commission unanimously approved the project’s site plan in November 2019, two neighbors appealed that decision to city council. Council is slated to consider the appeal at its public hearing on Saturday; however, because the proposal is a by-right development – meaning it abides by regulations outlined in the city’s zoning ordinance – the chances of council overturning the planning commission’s decision are slim.
The project would allow Alexandria Presbyterian Church to have its first permanent, singular home in Alexandria. While the church has been around since it was founded in 1986, it has moved through various temporary locations.
In its early years, the church held services at different community centers and churches. In 1999, it entered a long-term lease agreement with the Del Ray Baptist Church to hold a weekly Sunday service.
In 2015, Alexandria Presbyterian Church purchased its existing 1.87-acre site on West Braddock Road from the Alexandria Bible Church for 10 percent of the property’s market value.
“[Alexandria Bible Church] had to shut their doors because they were just not growing, so they offered us their building at an incredible discount,” Tom Holliday, senior pastor of Alexandria Presbyterian Church, said. “They wanted to see another church continue to minster on that property.”
Since the existing church only seats about 200 people and Alexandria Presbyterian Church has a congregation of about 500 people, it has been dividing its services between the West Braddock Road location and the Del Ray Baptist Church. For the last four years, the church has held a 9 a.m. service at DRBC and an 11 a.m. service at the former Alexandria Bible Church site.
With its lease at DRBC expiring in 2022, Alexandria Presbyterian Church decided to demolish the existing West Braddock Road building and construct a new one to accommodate its congregation. In addition to a new sanctuary with seating for 450 to 500 people, the project includes space for a nursery, classrooms, offices and 98 parking spaces. The project is estimated to cost between $12 and $13 million, Holliday said.
Neighbors have been expressing opposition to the size and scope of the new building since the onset of the project in fall of 2018. After an initial community meeting in November 2018, neighbors and church representatives have had several official and unofficial meetings.
The neighbors’ major concerns are the size of the building – 22,794 square feet; its setback from the curb – 30 feet at its closest; and increased traffic, according to Debra Rog, a 30-year resident of the neighborhood.
“We were pretty floored when we heard the plans because it wasn’t really a renovation, it’s just this huge development that they’re doing that just immediately felt out of scale for the neighborhood,” Rog said. “We immediately noted our concerns and got kind of a cold reception to that. … From then on, they haven’t addressed any of our initial concerns.”
Church representatives argued they’ve made compromises with respect to the design of the building.
“We’ve held meetings and tried to understand and hear and listen,” Holliday said. “To that end, we did design the building to conform to the neighborhood as much as we possibly can, so we think architecturally it’s going to fit well with the neighborhood.”
As for the neighbors’ specific concerns about size, setback and traffic, the church is within its rights.
“We are coming in under the existing zoning for the property,” Cathy Puskar, the church’s attorney, said. “We’re not asking for any modifications. We’re not asking for any use permit. We are asking for approval of the by-right site plan that either meets or exceeds all the requirements in the zoning ordinance.”
When the appeal of the planning commission’s approval goes before council on Saturday, council will be asked to consider whether the property meets those zoning requirements.
“The purpose of this appeal and the process of a site plan is to make sure that it meets the code,” Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, who has met with neighbors about the project, said. “If the zoning ordinance allows a certain setback or a certain height, then sort of our hands are tied.”
Neighbors expressed frustration with the process.
“It’s not, ‘Can you do this?’ but, ‘Should you do this?’ It’s an issue of ‘should,’” Rog said. “We tried to appeal to them as neighbors and what impact it’s going to have in our homes and their basic response was, ‘Well, we’re within our rights.’”
In the end, the decision will come down to council. If approved, the project will likely begin construction in fall 2020, Holliday said.
While the neighbors understand their chances of winning the appeal are slim, they plan to fight to the end, they said.
“The appeal is symbolic of the fact that there’s such bad blood,” Weiblinger said. “The neighborhood feels so dismissed by the church, and there’s really no, ‘Love thy neighbor’ involved here.”